“The cherries man! They’re huge!”
“And yer up there in the trees just surrounded by ‘em on all sides. Ya stick yer hands in a big cluster then just go cha, cha, cha, cha, cha.” Sergio mimed with his waggling fingers at us. The light of the camp fire danced across his intense smile. His nostalgia was palpable as he described a life of fruit picking in the Okanagan.
“Oh you’ve gotta go, you’ve just gotta see it to believe it man.”
We all long to see the world. Everyone wants to quit their job and hit the road, to go somewhere you’ve never been before and do something you’ve never done.
There’s an idealistic allure to travel without end. It seems like such a free life without schedules or bosses or rent.
But the truth is that freedom isn’t free, and the barrier to travel for most is money. That is, after they get over the self doubt, hesitation, and fear that keeps them from believing they can go. Money is the biggest worry for the would be traveler.
It is hard to leave your stable job and your comfortable house. You make a decent living, but you rely on your paychecks to keep you going. You have rent and bills and all sorts of other payments to keep up on. If you leave your job, how will you pay for everything, let alone anything?
What Sergio had been telling me about in the jungles of Guatemala was fruit picking, specifically cherry picking. A life where you camp for free in the orchards with people from all around the world.
A time of year when travelers converge on the hot valley of lake Okanagan in BC, Canada, one of the largest fruit picking mecas in North America.
For the summer months, the small towns along the lake overflow with dreadlocked Quebecois, tattooed Spaniards, and wandering Europeans. There are large camps of Mexican and Central American workers who send extra earnings south to family. Jamaicans come in large numbers to enjoy the lifestyle of freedom. And there are always a few wandering Americans, just looking to get off the beaten path. That was us.
We had no experience fruit picking, no job to go to, and no idea what we were doing. Our only connection was unreliable, at best. So, as we drove north into Canada, we were entirely prepared for the possibility of failure. Could it really be as easy as showing up and asking for work? Sergio sure made it sound that way.
As it turns out, showing up and asking for work is just about all that it takes. You have to be up early, usually 4:30 in the morning. That’s the hardest part, but it gets easier day by day. In most farms workers are coming and going so frequently they would never even notice if you just walked in and started picking.
At the end of the day (around 2-4 o’clock usually) someone comes around and counts the number of baskets you picked. Pay is usually five or six dollars per basket. And usually you can get payed at the end of the day or the end of the week if you just hunt down the boss.
Once you find a farm to pick for, life is easy. You can just pitch your tent in the orchards with everyone else. Pick as fast as you like every day, and enjoy a carefree life. By the time that farm is finished, you’re likely to have a lead on another farm to go to.
In the Okanogan valley, cherries ripen from south to north. The season usually starts in the southern towns of Osoyoos and Oliver in June. Pickers mostly start there and then move north as they finish each farm they work on. Each place is different and some farms are better work than others. It’s a real free for all lifestyle.
Fruit picking in the Okanagan is about much more than just cherries. Cherries are a great entry level fruit because they are easy to pick without training. However, peaches, apples, and grapes all are common fruits to pick. Pay is different for each fruit, as are the seasons.
Veteran fruit pickers will usually return each summer and do an early fruit and a mid season fruit. Then they finish off the summer with apples or tree pruning as the fall begins to creep in.
By the end of a season of picking, you can have several thousand dollars saved up. After all, you hardly need to spend a dime on living the fruit picking lifestyle. Then, you can use that money to get to wherever you’re going to work next. Or you can take it back home with you and buy some fun toys or use it to help pay off bills and car payments. Whatever you want.
But fruit picking isn’t unique to Canada. All over the world, orchards hire migrant workers to clean their trees just like in the Okanagan. I met many pickers who go to Australia every year where fruit picking is plentiful. France and parts of Europe also have many orchards and vineyards.
Once you have a foot in the door and start meeting other pickers, you’ll start to hear about all the possibilities. Fruits like lemons, kiwis, and pears– how do those make it from the tree to the store? A fruit picker plucks them and then the distributor ships them.
If you long to live a nomadic lifestyle, look into fruit picking. Free camping, companions from around the world, and a summer spent out in nature all make it a great way to travel. Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith and go look for a job. With a little confidence, persistence and a positive attitude, you’ll find yourself in an orchard in no time.
So next time you are looking for a job abroad, remember: Where there is fruit, there is work.
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We live in a beautiful world, get out there and enjoy it.
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